How Being a Writer is Like Being a Gardner

photo 1I’ve reached an age where, because I don’t have any children, I’m picking up “adult hobbies.” I blame this too on the fact that I own a house now* and feel like, you know, I should probably take care of it. So, I’ve started gardening.

Last weekend I stepped into my yard to assess my hard work. The black-eyed Susans are blooming, so is the lavender, and the mint is out of control. The bee balm is bowing out of the mint’s way. The valerian root is trying to stand out amongst the weeds. The lilac bushes are holding their own, though one branch has given up. The pansies are fickle and wilt at a minute’s worth of too much sun, yet the second I flood them, they’ll perk up as if nothing was wrong. The pansies are acting like, well, pansies.

I realized there are probably a hundred metaphors or lessons on life in my garden. As I stepped close to examine leaves then stepped back to take in the whole plant or bush, I saw that the process of taking care of plants is much like the process of being a writer.

Not all stories will bloom at the same time.

One of my naiveties about gardening was the idea that some plants bloom in the spring while others bloom in the summer or fall, or take several years to flower. Honestly, I thought if you put it in the ground then it would grow “when it got warm.”

This vague sense of expectation (it just needs water, right?) is similar to the haphazard way I wrote stories when I was a beginning writer. I thought, if I begin a story and put x number of hours into it (y) then publication (z) would come at a constant rate. As I’ve continued to write and publish my work it has become increasingly clear that there is no magic formula for how long a story needs. Some stories or poems truly come out in one sitting, get a little spit and polish and they’re out the door. Others will require revisions and 17 separate drafts saved to the computer before there’s any promise of a few petals.

Stories require weeding.

And as I continue to revise those stories that persist for many growing seasons, I find little surprises when I leave the story alone and come back to it in the form of phrases like, “What the hell was I trying to say?” and “How did I not catch that?”

In my own yard, I went away for a weeklong vacation and came back to find more weeds than flowers in my beds, and they were embarrassingly and annoyingly tall. My initial thought had been, “How did that weed grow in just one week?” when actually, the weed had probably started much sooner. It wasn’t until the weed was out of control that I noticed.

Redundancies, wordiness, and darlings crop up in writing all the time but aren’t noticed until they’ve grown along side the beautiful stuff. When I find these weeds, I know what I have to do: pull them out, even if that weed looks like a flower. It’s not.

Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary, How does your garden grow? photo 2

When you’ve done the writing thing for a while, if you’re anything like me you find yourself drifting into other genres. The fiction writers try their hand at poetry, the poet writes an essay, and pretty soon, like the zealous gardener, you have eight varieties of mint, a struggling patch of thyme, (and didn’t there used to be a rose bush in there?), all growing on top of each other.

Don’t get me wrong; I think writing across genres is a good thing. Prose can benefit from the lyricism of poetry, and fiction can appreciate the realism of nonfiction.

Similarly, many plants like to grow together. I’m sure that thing with the leaves and the tag with a little picture of a half-sun appreciates growing under the shade of my 50-year-old crab apple tree, for example. But when I pull the hose out, it would be a waste of water if I used any on that tree because it doesn’t need any (that’s what rain is for, duh.)  While cross-pollination can enhance writing, each genre also requires the patience and individual care that an orchid collector might give her orchids or the rose enthusiast might give her roses.

The submission process has its seasons.  

As I’ve come to undephoto 3rstand the intricacies of my garden (water for pansies, yes, water for mint, are you joking? Grab the scythe!) I’ve developed a greater appreciation for the passage of time. The mint requires harvesting before the lavender, the black-eyed Susans bloom after the tulips. The changes in each plant mark a day in a greater cycle of growth.

Just as each plant goes through its process of germination, growth, flowering and/or fruiting, and decay, so too does the writing I choose to send out into the world. I have stories waiting to flower, others growing, some showing signs of decay, and in the moments between, every idea or singing phrase is written down in a notebook to germinate.

The satisfaction that comes from cultivating my garden is the same satisfaction I get from cultivating my writing. Each day, whether I’m down on my knees in the dirt, or am only doing so metaphorically, I am seeing a season through to its end while simultaneously sowing the seeds of the next.


*Note: This simple fact, that I can write the clause “I own a house now,” puzzles me. I have daymares where I ask myself, “Wait, who decided I could be trusted with a HOUSE?!”

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The Last Word

On a recent episode of Pop Culture Happy Hour the crew discussed first impressions in movies, books, films and TV. Panelist Glen Weldon gave some of his favorite opening lines in books then went on to create this comprehensive list of opening lines.

Coming to the end of the rewrite on my own novel, I find myself contemplating endings rather than beginnings, and I have another writerly confession to make: I judge a book by its last word, which I read first.

Before you lay judgement, things that I know:

A) This is a ludicrious habit.

B) The likelihood that an entire book could be encapsulated by only the last word, when considering the numerous books in existence, is outrageously and implausibly small.

And you might wonder how I can peek at the last word without spoiling the ending.  My ability to flip to the last page and peek, only taking in that last word, maybe two, has been fostered by years of looking at scary movies through fingers, ready to close the gap in a nanosecond lest I see a wayward severed head.

But let’s entertain for a moment that the last word does have literary significance and that it could suggest a work’s “goodness.” Consider the following novels and their last words:

Persuasion, Jane Austen: “importance.”

Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte: “Jesus!”

Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte: “earth.”

The Brief Life Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Diaz: “beauty.”

The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse, Louise Erdrich: “earth.”

The Virgin Suicides, Jeffrey Eugenides: “together.”

The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald: “past.”

The End of the Affair, Graham Greene: “ever.”

The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver: “light.”

The Life of Pi, Yann Martel: “tiger.”

Dancer, Colum McCann: “sold.”

The Color Purple, Alice Walker: “Amen”

How apt that an Austen novel should end on stature, and Martel leave us with the elephant in the room, or rather the tiger. Even Fitzgerald’s “past” sums up the entire book in one word. For most (okay all) of these, the context of the story is what gives the word its meaning but each of these words still holds a sense of finality and hints at a Theme: community, nature, faith, time.

To be fair, as I was compiling my list I pulled several books from the shelves that had seemingly irrelevant last words:

A Visit from the Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan: “keys.”

Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov: “way.”

The Amateur Marriage, Anne Tyler: “bend.”

For these instances I would give these writers the benefit of the doubt and say that the finality probably comes in the final sentence, which puts the benign word in context but sentences give too much away. And I maintain that I wish not to be spoiled–I’m a word-peeker, not a monster.

One of my writing mentors, Aaron Hamburger, always said that a story is like a body and every sentence, every word, should hold the DNA of the entire work.  So, it should follow that the last word would be the most pregnant with the DNA of a story. The last word is the end of the literary helix.

By giving myself the final word, I have the destination, the end point, the goal, a promise of return on my investment, the framework into which all of the rest of the words will fit. The book becomes a living thing whose cells and chemistry work together effortlessly.

Reading the last word first doesn’t seem so ludicrous after all, does it?

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What’s in a Name?

“Reader” By h.koppdelaney, via Flickr

“Reader” By h.koppdelaney, via Flickr

Nameless here for evermore.” – The Raven, Edgar Allan Poe

Recently I got married, and in the moments when I wasn’t deciding where my grandmother would sit during the ceremony, or trying to remember if I ate lunch that day, a quandary of many female writers weighed on my mind–once married, should I publish using my married name?

Many writers or dispensers of writing advice will tell you NOT to publish under your married name because, frankly, statistics are not in your favor. You could become Mrs. Fabulous-Last-Name (hyphenated, of course) only to find yourself divorced within five to ten years with that pesky pen name following you from book cover to book cover as a reminder of your ex.

Others will tell you not to take your partner’s name, particularly if they will be publishing too.  I always thought this argument was a little backwards. I’m sure Tabitha King has had some success because of her famous husband. And the Brownings literary success seemed mutually beneficial too. Shouldn’t having the same name as your famous partner help to boost your own success?

Before deciding whether or not to take my partner’s name, let’s take a look at the name I have: Ashley Johnson.

Do you know how many Ashley Johnson’s there are in the world? I was even a member of a Facebook group dedicated to the name that has thousands of members (which has since mysteriously disappeared from my profile).

Do you remember Chrissy form the TV Show Growing Pains? That actress is named Ashley Johnson.

Not only was “Ashley” the most popular girls’ name in 1991 and 1992, the surname “Johnson” is downright boring. For that matter it’s not even mine. My Irish ancestors used the name to come to America at least a century ago. I could be an O’Malley or a Kelly for all I know.

If you need another reason, I had a nightmarish nickname: Big Johnson.

Some of my fellow writers suggested I abandon my entire name and take on a new identity, complete with vague ethnic origins, a signature handshake, and subtle adjustments to my gait. The name they concocted for me was good. Too good, in fact, to share, in case I decide to use it to write erotica or science fiction.

These reasons aside, I’ve chosen to take my partner’s name (albeit selfishly) because I like it better than mine. To me it sounds literary. It sounds like the person I want to be.

And, I figure it can’t hurt throwing my middle initial in there. It worked for J. K. Rowling.

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Stonecoast’s Faculty Blog’s Literary Moments of 2012


Here’s  a post I wrote for my other blogging gig, check it out.

Originally posted on Stonecoast Faculty Blog:

“2012” by hellojenuine courtesy of Flickr

“2012” by hellojenuine courtesy of Flickr

It’s that time of year when the world makes lists: best-of, top-this, best-that. In the tradition of fostering reflection, the Stonecoast Faculty Blog has come up with our own end-of-year list, our Literary Moments of 2012 (in no particular order). Have some literary moments of your own? We’d love to read them—just leave them in the comments below.

No Pulitzer Awarded for Fiction

Pencils dropped last April when the Pulitzer judges did not award a prize for fiction. The Pulitzer judges have withheld an award for fiction 11 times, the last time being in 1977. Three finalists were identified for the 2012 prize: Train Dreams by Denis Johnson, Swamplandia! by Karen Russell, and The Pale King by David Foster Wallace.”The three books were fully considered, but in the end, none mustered the mandatory majority for granting a prize, so no prize was awarded,”…

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Who Needs Macy’s?

One of the many joys of moving back to Montana is the opportunity to observe the quaint traditions of the community where I live, namely, the Annual Holiday Parade. Granted, there were no balloons or Businessmen of Whimsy, but as you will see, a Western Holiday Parade is fraught with entertainment value.

Top 6 Things You’ll See in a Western Parade

1) A float in a Western Parade isn’t complete without a pair of antlers.

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When Artists Retire

image courtesy of The Philip Roth Society

Last week, several American news outlets reported that novelist Philip Roth had written his last book.

Here is an excerpt from an article posted on

Roth said that at 74, realizing he was running out of years, he reread all his favorite novels, and then reread all his books in reverse chronological order. “I wanted to see if I had wasted my time writing,” he said. “And I thought it was rather successful. At the end of his life, the boxer Joe Louis said: ‘I did the best I could with what I had.’ This is exactly what I would say of my work: I did the best I could with what I had.

“And after that, I decided that I was done with fiction. I do not want to read, to write more,” he said. “I have dedicated my life to the novel: I studied, I taught, I wrote and I read. With the exclusion of almost everything else. Enough is enough! I no longer feel this fanaticism to write that I have experienced in my life.”

As an artist at the beginning of my career, Roth’s statements seem hard to believe. With more books to read than I can count, and story ideas that keep me awake at night, how could a lifetime be possibly long enough to read everything I want to read and write everything I want to write?

Roth’s statements bring to light a great debate or paradox for many artists: is being an artist a job or a calling?

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Revising My Life

After finishing a draft of a story, some authors put the story in a drawer so that, when enough time has passed, they can pull it out and look at it with fresh eyes. In an example of life imitating art, for the past year my life has been a draft of a story sitting in a drawer, waiting to be taken out.

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